Last year, I watched 10 movies over fall break. This year, I’ve broken my record: eleven movies in six days. If you didn’t think it could be done, at the very least you hate me and at the very most you hate women with hobbies. Mentally, I feel pretty much the same, maybe a little bit more smug than I was a week ago. Physically, the only impact that’s been left on me is a slight loss of muscle mass as a result of taking under 500 steps four of those six days. Last year, I gave short reviews of these movies and this year, I’m back to do the same. As an expert in the film critique industry, you’re going to want to keep reading…
1. A Tale of Springtime (1990), A Tale of Winter (1992), and A Tale of Summer (1996) dir. by Éric Rohmer
These three films, directed by lush French director Eric Rohmer, are part of his “tales of the four seasons” collection of films. There is indeed a fourth one (I’ll let you guess the title), but I didn’t have time to watch it. Sue me. Rohmer’s films have a lived-in quality that makes them both easy and breathtaking to watch. Not like an old sweater you put on when you have nothing else to wear, but a perfect vintage leather jacket that you don’t wear often but when you do it’s just right. These films were no different. All three films feature hot, French, 20-something-year-olds experiencing differing levels of Seasonal Affective Disorder. The energies of the respective seasons shape the characters’ emotions and actions. Summer is the one I’d recommend most. Rohmer has a way of infecting his summer films with the restlessness people often experience during the season. As one of my old coworkers put on letterboxd, “funny that this guy was freaking out about when to go on vacation when he was literally in the most beautiful beach town ever the entire time.” If there’s one thing the French know well, it’s summer vacation, which is why a healthy quarter of Rohmer’s filmography depicts it. It’s also his film that he’s described as the most autobiographical, featuring a male protagonist (his proxy) instead of his typical female protagonist. His films are mostly plotless, just malaised characters moving through time. Due to the utter lack of any suspense, these films are a complete breeze to watch, and I wholeheartedly recommend them and any other Rohmer films you decide to sink your teeth into after this.
2. Mona Lisa Smile (2003) dir. by Mike Newell
This film felt really correct to me. Set at Wellesley College in the early 1950s, it follows a young art history teacher (played by Julia Roberts), as she changes the lives of the girls in her class (seemingly played by every working White actress in the early 2000s) with her “subversive” teaching style and content. It’s definitely more of a “pop” movie than anything else on this list (chick flick, one might even say), but it was sweet and actually necessary viewing for me as an art history major. Some major plot holes, such as why was an ART100 class composed entirely of seniors? Why was said ART100 class a year-long class? Would Wellesley really have been so unreceptive to “progressive” politics and teaching? These are important questions movies rarely pose nowadays.
3. Secretary (2002) dir. by Steven Shainberg
NSFW. Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, who apparently exclusively starred in softcore erotic movies in the 90s-00s, respectively play a secretary and lawyer who begin a sadomasochistic relationship. The relationship is life changing for both parties, but more so for Gyllenhaal’s character, a severely repressed woman who had recently been released from a psychiatric facility prior to acquiring this job through the classifieds. Early in the film, Gyllenhaal performs acts of self-harm to relieve herself of the pain she feels on the inside. Once the relationship with Spader begins, the S&M they engage in becomes her new form of pain relief, allowing her to ditch the toolkit she keeps hidden, first in her bedroom then in the office. Gyllenhaal’s character soon blossoms from a socially awkward and sensitive girl to a fully-fledged woman, and Gyllenhaal seamlessly shifts to reflect her character’s changes. This movie looks at the situation with a more comedic eye than other films that depict relationships of this nature. However, it also normalizes the couple’s dynamic, so as not to poke too much fun at this very real aspect of human sexuality. This was one of my favorites of the week, and I endorse it with every fiber of my being.
4. Dead Ringers (1987) dir. by David Cronenberg
I would argue this movie is also NSFW, but you shouldn’t expect anything less from David Cronenberg. The film is based on the book Twins: Dead Ringers by Jack Gleasand and Bari Wood, which highly dramatized the true story of two twin gynecologists who both became addicted to barbiturates and died within several days of each other. In the film, the twins (both played by Jeremy Irons), also take advantage of their identical features and the clientele of their shared OB-GYN practice to seduce and hand women off to each other. The mental and physical states of the twins deteriorate and fluctuate throughout the film, and by the end each is but a shell of the man we see at the beginning. Irons masterfully plays each twin with such nuance, drawing a thin but visible line between each one. The deep reds of the costume and set design gave this a really evil feeling. Though this was certainly not my favorite Cronenberg (far less deviant than he usually is), it was still engrossing and absolutely mad.
5. sex, lies, and videotape (1989) dir. by Steven Soderbergh
Despite the tantalizing title, this movie was pretty milquetoast. It also began a weird succession of movies for James Spader, whom I mentioned earlier as being somewhat of a king in the “men with sexual inefficiencies and weird kinks” genre. The acting, aside from the Andie Macdowell, is definitely the only saving grace to an otherwise boring and, dare I say, not great movie. Maybe I’m just desensitized due to the undisclosed number of psychosexual movies that I’ve seen but I’d hoped for something a little more scandalous. NEXT.
6. Damsels in Distress (2011) dir. by Whit Stillman
Oh boy. This was upsetting. I’m staunchly a Whit Stillman fan, so I sat down for this film with an open heart and a warm embrace. I was not met with the same quality I’ve grown to expect from Stillman, whose brilliant series of films depicting the “Doomed-Bourgeois-In-Love” in the 90s made him an instant icon for me. But, as I said earlier, Oh Boy. It follows a troupe of girls at a New England college, navigating life as Pretty Girls in a sea of unhygienic, pompous, and at times “playboy/operator” guys. The girls run a suicide prevention clinic, whose aid consists of dance classes and donuts for the students who seek out their unauthorized help. I don’t know what it was about this film, but it just fell so flat. I think the majority of the dialogue did not have the spontaneity or wit that was the marker of Stillman’s earlier films. The film is sectioned off by title cards, which disjointed it and took me out of the viewing experience. The usual cast of actors Stillman used in the 90s were able to balance the line of real and glamorized, which the actors in this were not able to replicate. It was like an uncanny valley version of a Whit Stillman movie. As I said in my one-sentence letterboxd review (elliediamond—you’ll regret it), this movie had flashes of the Whit Stillman I’m used to, but not enough to tolerate it. NEXT.
7. The Celebration (1998) dir. by Thomas Vinterberg
Known as Festen in its native language, this Danish film serves as the first and most recognizable film of the Dogme 95 movement created by Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier. It tells the story of a wealthy family gathering together to celebrate the 60th birthday of its patriarch, punctuated by stories of abuse, incest, suicide, and other trauma the family endured at the hands of the man they are supposed to be celebrating. The Dogme movement stripped down the technique of filmmaking, eschewing special effects to highlight story, acting, and theme. The handheld camera and grainy lens utilized in the film coupled with its content give it a really eerie and disturbed feeling, almost like a really twisted, found-footage home video. What may seem like an incredibly heavy movie is treated with a darkly comic tone that I’m told is characteristic of Scandinavians, which made it a really dynamic and interesting experience. Probably my favorite watch of the whole week, second only to the next film I discuss…
8. Mistress America (2015) dir. by Noah Baumbach
What I wanted out of Whit Stillman I got out of Noah Baumbach. Co-written by and starring Greta Gerwig, who also starred in the Stillman-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, the film follows an awkward freshman at Barnard (Lola Kirke), who seeks refuge and companionship in her soon to be step-sister (Gerwig). Though I’ve not been an 18-to-30-year-old residing independently in New York (but I am from there, don’t get it twisted), it makes me miss the brief period of adultishness I experienced this summer working as a host (and also “funniest person”) at a restaurant. These types of people, also examined in works like Girls, The Color Wheel, and other entries into the “mumblecore” and post-mumblecore genre (which, for the uninitiated, are characterized as films that feature minimal plot with naturalistic dialogue and acting), exude a sense of self that is completely manufactured yet somehow comes across as entirely authentic. Because I’m coming to this content about 10 years too late, I’m still in awe of the quick-witted, spontaneous lives these people live. I’d go so far as to say that I aspire to experience the restless, doomed-bourgeois life that several filmmakers on this list highlighted, but maybe I should keep that closer to my chest.
9. The Master (2012) dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson
This just didn’t do it for me. I’m sorry. I can respect it as “good” or whatever but I was neither thrilled nor enlightened while watching. I’d take any other PTA over this. I think he’s much better at writing post-mid century stories (“write what you know” and all that) and I’m so tired of hearing about cults. Oh, and I don’t like Joaquin Phoenix, which may be a hot take (though he does jerk off in a very odd way about 5 minutes into the movie). Much love and respect to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though.